Monday, April 14, 2014

Mailbox Monday - an ode to book blogging

Lest anyone doubt the efficacy of book blogs to publicize books amongst readers, I am noting that 5 of the 6 books I received over the past couple of weeks are ones I specifically sought out due to reading reviews on fellow book blogger sites.  Thanks for the great recommendations!

Mailbox Monday is the gathering place for readers to share the books that came in their mailbox during the last week. Warning: Mailbox Monday can lead to envy,
toppling TBR piles and humongous wish lists.  Visit Here to view other Mailbox Monday lists.

Here's what I can't wait to read...

Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates - I have never read anything by this classic American author, and it's high time I did.  I read about this book on BooksPlease and thought it sounded fascinating.  I have always admired Marilyn Monroe since I stumbled across Bus Stop on TV when I was a kid and I was just mesmerized by her.

The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan - I also learned about this from Margaret on BooksPlease. I am trying to read more classic mysteries, and this sounded terrific.  I love that it takes place in Scotland.  Short--a good airplane book.

Mount Joy, by Daisy Newman - I heard about this from CLM from Staircase Wit.  I'm always on the lookout for books about the Camino de Santiago--so many, like the Shirley MacLaine one and the Paolo Coelho one, are quasi-mystical, mumbo-jumbo--but this looks good.  Published in 1968, it's a novel about a college-age girl who walks the Camino.

Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives by Daisy Hay - this has been on my wish list for years--I can't remember where I first heard about it, but I know it was an internet book friend. Here's the Amazon blurb:
The book focuses on the network of writers and readers who gathered around Percy Bysshe Shelley and the campaigning journalist Leigh Hunt. They included Lord Byron, John Keats, and Mary Shelley, as well as a host of fascinating lesser-known figures: Mary Shelley’s stepsister and Byron’s mistress, Claire Clairmont; Hunt’s botanist sister-in-law, Elizabeth Kent; the musician Vincent Novello; the painters Benjamin Haydon and Joseph Severn; and writers such as Charles and Mary Lamb, Thomas Love Peacock, and William Hazlitt. They were characterized by talent, idealism, and youthful ardor, and these qualities shaped and informed their politically oppositional stances—as did their chaotic family arrangements, which often left the young women, despite their talents, facing the consequences of the men’s philosophies.
I Know This Much is True, by Wally Lamb - I've been hearing a lot about Lamb and Joann at Lakeside Musing recommended this book as one of his best.  It's a chunkster at 900 pages, but I think it will go quickly.

Winter Study, by Nevada Barr - Next in the Anna Pigeon series for me--I'm a few years behind--always a fun read.  I'm heading off on a road trip to 4-5 National Parks in May, so this will get me in the spirit for NP exploring.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Mansfield Park - What is the Matter with Fanny?

Since 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen's most controversial novel, Mansfield Park, I decided to reread it.  Of all the novels, I think I've reread it fewer than any of the others, though I'm probably into the double-digits by now with this one as well.

Usually I say that it's my least favorite Austen novel until I'm actually reading it, and then I'm struck by the wit, the structure, the flawless composition, the characterization and deft turns of phrase and then say how much I like it.  This time I listened to a recording, and while it's often noted that Austen's works shine when read aloud, I found that I was less able to appreciate all its positive attributes because I was focusing on how aggravating Fanny, Edmund, and Mary can be.

The reader did a fine job in representing Mary as a heartless flirt and Edmund as a hopeless drip and Fanny as a passive-aggressive whiner, so good a job in fact that I couldn't really enjoy the story all that much. I think my internal reading voice has been cutting all three of them a tremendous amount of slack over the years!

I still found Henry Crawford deliciously, dangerously attractive, and like Mary, I wish that Fanny had accepted him before that nasty Maria could seduce him into throwing his happiness away with both hands.

I'm actually thinking the character I like best in the book is William Price, Fanny's brother.  He and Susan, her sister, have the most spunk of any of the characters.

So what is the problem with Fanny?  My current feeling is that she is too much like those heroines of the 18th century novel--the delicate, fainting, moralizing creatures that Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth, et al, wrote about.  They may be good girls but stuff happens to them--they don't make stuff happen.  I think Fanny is in this category and her story is just not all that interesting, despite Austen's tremendous storytelling and writing abilities.

For your reading pleasure, here's a link to a short story in my Austen-inspired collection Intimations of Austen, that I was thinking about whilst reading Mansfield Park again: The Three Sisters

I'm so glad that Emma is the next book whose anniversary we get to celebrate. Now there is a heroine who sets things in motion!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: Gateway Books/Authors

This week's Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) is about those Gateway Books or Authors in Our Reading Journey who got you into reading, or into reading a genre you never thought you'd read, or brought you BACK into reading.

Definitely this was a fun Top Ten list to consider--I focused on authors because when I find an author who works for, I tend to try to read everything they come out with.  I also had a blast coming up with the right illustrations for my authors.

Donna Leon - Leon's series of books featuring Guido Brunetti sparked an interest in Venice that has taken hold of me and just won't let go.  Now I seek out books--histories, novels, memoirs--about Venice.  Hoping to make it there this fall.

Nevada Barr - I've always liked mysteries, but Barr's Anna Pigeon series which features a lot of National Parks and a lot of hiking got me interested in both.  Now I walk daily and hike weekly, and make a point of planning vacations around visiting National Parks...truly one of America's best ideas! 

Mary Stewart - I'm not much of a Romance reader but my mom used to get British women's magazines from our town's newspaper/tobacco shop in the 1960's and I learned to read by reading the serialized Mary Stewart stories, complete with stirring illustrations!

Bill Bryson - My love of travel and travel memoirs can be traced to reading Bryson's oh-so-snarky travel books.

Jane Austen - Classics don't have to be big, scary, or filled with political ramblings that are incomprehensible to the modern reader.

Daphne du Maurier - I love psychological thrillers and DDM is the mistress of the genre.

James Michener - I love historical fiction and Michener hooked me early.

Margaret Forster - I didn't really start reading literary bios until my dad gave me Forster's bio of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and I fell in love with the genre.

Erik Larson - I love his histories that read like novels; Larsen's books made me go back and read In Cold Blood, the prototype of the genre in which Larsen shines.

Tracy Chevalier - Artifact-based fictionalized backstory. Love it!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Travelogue: Sandhill Cranes in Kearney, Nebraska

This past weekend we joined hundreds of fellow birders and drove out to Kearney, Nebraska to watch hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes rest up midway in their annual migration up to their nesting grounds in Canada.  It's estimated that 80% of the world's population of sandhill cranes pass through the Kearney area every spring during a six-week period.

It was a wonderful, smile-filled, awe-inspiring trip and well worth the mere 5.5 hours it took to get there from our home in Colorado.

Here's what we saw...

During the day, the cranes fill up and clean up corn fields not yet plowed for planting.  You can see them feeling frisky as they dance in the spring sun-- crane dancing includes wing flapping, bowing, jumps and simply playing around.  Dancing is part of the mating ritual (see Jane Austen for details!), but I think the actual mating is delayed until the birds reach their nesting grounds.  This is just the warm up.

As you drive around the area, the fields surrounding the river are filled with cranes as are the skies as they move around looking for the best fields.

We watched from a bridge across the Platte River as the cranes settled in for the night. Many huddled together (ala March of the Penguins) on the river's islands and even in the water, which is very shallow.  I heard someone describe the Platte as "a mile wide and a foot deep"--not quite, but the water didn't reach the birds' knees.  The naturalist at the Rowe Sanctuary said that cranes like to sleep in the river because that way they can hear predators, like coyotes, splashing as they approach their prey.  

We got to the bridge about 6:30 pm, set up our camera and spotting scope, and then enjoyed watching other water fowl as we waited for sunset.  I was surprised that the birds really didn't settle in until it was just about dark.  It was so cool to see and hear a distant flock rise up from a corn field, swarm around for a bit, and then settle down into the river for the night.

Whooping cranes, which is an endangered species, occasionally are spotted in amongst the sandhill cranes.  We were lucky enough to be standing next to some very experienced birders who were able to pick out a white crane amongst the thousands of gray ones, and we found it in our spotting scope and watched it as it was jostled and generally made to feel unwelcome until it finally flew away to find a more tolerant group to huddle with.

The next morning, at first light, the birds started taking off.  We were back on the bridge in the dark by 6 am--it was less crowded than the night before--but still a fair number of people out to witness one of nature's great events. As we walked the half mile from the parking lot to the bridge, you could hear the soft murmurings of the cranes as they rested in the river, gearing up for the day's work of eating enough to make the rest of the journey north.

By the time it was this light, all the birds had left the part of the river that we could see from the bridge.  

And by the time we were headed back into town for breakfast before the drive back to Colorado, the cranes were already hard at work in the fields around Kearney and the Platte River.

For more information:
Rowe Sanctuary - they also have a Crane Cam, which is available if you can't make the trip to Kearney
Nature Conservancy blog post - really great tips on how to make the most of your trip to Kearney

I absolutely loved going to see the cranes resting during their spring migration, and I can imagine making my own annual migration to Kearney to witness theirs.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Crossing Purgatory

One of my reading resolutions for 2014 was to read more new books.  Not only do I tend to read a lot of classics, but I generally don't read recently published books unless they are by a favorite author.  However, I'm trying to mix it up a bit this year, and so have become a devoted scanner of BookPage, which I pick up at my library.

In a recent issue, I found a blurb promoting Crossing Purgatory, by Gary Schanbacher, a fellow Coloradoan, and was intrigued by the story and encouraged by Schanbacher's credentials--his short story collection, Migration Patterns, received a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention for “distinguished first works of fiction,” and won the Colorado Book Award, the High Plains First Book Award, and the Eric Hoffer General Fiction Award. 

I love westerns and books about Colorado and good writing, and Crossing Purgatory is all three.  Set in the late 1850s, it tells the story of Thompson Gray, a farmer from Ohio who loses his wife and sons to illness and loses his will and way in the aftermath of their deaths, for which he blames himself.  He walks away from his farm and hooks up with a wagon train following the Santa Fe Trail.  He befriends a family that also encounter tragedy enroute to a new life on the frontier, and ends up living and working in a tiny community not far from Bent's Fort, out on what are now the eastern Colorado plains.

I haven't been down to Bent's Fort since my college-going kids were in elementary school, and I've been thinking about visiting there again this spring so now I really want to go.  It's fun and enriching to actually visit the places I read about, and Schanbacher did an outstanding job of capturing the rough beauty of the prairie in his prose. 

I really enjoyed the story and metaphor of Crossing Purgatory--the Purgatoire River is one of the tributaries of the Arkansas River, and I imagine was the inspiration for the story, in which Thompson Gray must do penance for allowing his family to perish in his absence before he can resume living again.  Luckily, Schanbacher didn't handle his metaphor with a heavy hand and so it provided food for thought as I read the book.

I really enjoyed Crossing Purgatory, and would actually like to read a sequel to it.  I haven't read that the author has one in the works but Thompson Gray was still a young man when the book ended and between the Colorado goldrush, which he touched on a bit, and the Civil War and the tragedy of the Sand Creek Massacre, which took place in 1864 and less than 100 miles away, there is plenty of material to draw upon.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion

I learned about Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion, by Robert Morgan, on a fellow blogger's site and thought it sounded perfect.  I am a westerner and love learning about the role the West played in the development of the U.S.  The structure of the book really worked for me--each section is on a different individual who helped shaped the West in one way or another.  Many of their stories and histories overlap, but I liked being able to focus on a single individual and learn about his story and role one at a time.

The book covered Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, John “Johnny Appleseed” Chapman, David Crockett, Sam Houston, James K. Polk, Winfield Scott, Kit Carson, Nicholas Trist, and John Quincy Adams.  While the subtitle promises to feature villains as well as heroes, I think this is overstated.  In a way, I didn't see anyone as really a hero or a villain.  They all were admirable to a degree--some more than others--and they all took part in activities that could be seen as questionable, and many did things that were downright dishonorable and reprehensible.  For the most part, all were well-intentioned and patriotic and loyal to their cause, but oh, so human!  They engaged in petty squabbling, they turned away from what they knew was right (e.g., abolishing slavery, acknowledging the rights of Native Americans, stealing land from Mexico and Britain and France), but they had a vision and acted to make that vision a reality.

The only one I didn't really know about before reading the book was Nicholas Trist, and I found his story to be among the most interesting.  Gifted with incredible talents and skills as diplomat and administrator, he was also hampered by incredible shortcomings--an inability to speak in public and a knee-jerk defensive reaction to any type of criticism that resulted in him writing long (>160 pages) letters of rebuttal (makes Mr. Darcy's letter to Elizabeth Bennet seem like child's play).  He married Thomas Jefferson's granddaughter, and was an executor of his will, as well as one of his proteges.  

I also didn't know much about Sam Houston, so I really enjoyed learning about this dynamic, gregarious man, and now want to read a full biography of him.  Everything I knew about Polk I had learned from the Jackson bio I read last year, but Morgan didn't paint a glowing picture of this Machiavellian president.  I absolutely fell in love with General Winfield Scott, "Old Fuss and Feathers," and would love to read more about him as well.  And then, I've always had a soft spot for John Quincy Adams since I watched the John Adams mini-series--my goodness, a diplomat to Russia at age 14, and he swallowed his pride and served as a congressman for years after he lost the presidency!  And, I daresay, he was the "noblest Roman of them all" but letting his 1928 campaign supporters smear Rachel Donelson Robbiard Jackson, Andrew Jackson's wife, was shameful.

I did like the way the author drew on and quoted from a host of historians, many whose names I recognized but whose works I never read.  I tend to read more recent historians, but that doesn't make the research, opinions, and scholarly work of their predecessors less valid.

Incredibly, this book was not part of any of the various reading challenges I have signed up for this year.  I read it just because and is one of the reasons I am behind schedule on those same challenges!

William Ranney, Daniel Boone's First View of Kentucky, 1849

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close vs Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt

I recently finished two first-person stories, which I pretty much read simultaneously, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (by Jonathan Safran Foer) and Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt.  The latter is the first of Anne Rice's two-part novel on the life of Jesus.

Despite their manifold differences, they ended up having a lot in common beyond the first-person narrative. Both narrators were young boys searching for their father, and while Jesus was a lot younger than Oskar (seven/eight versus twelve), they seemed very similar in their fundamental need to who they were, who they belonged to, and how they could possibly go on, given the burdens they carried.

I've wanted to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ever since I saw the movie a few years ago, and it didn't disappoint.  It is a very powerful book that creatively and effectively uses flashback, stream of consciousness, illustration, and typography to get inside the mind of a boy who lost a beloved father in the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center.  There were many parts of the book that absolutely choked me up and were tough to read for their honest portrayal of the guilt, isolation, and grief that Oskar Schell feels as he struggles to hold on to his father in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and over the next couple of years. I honestly think this is a modern classic and one that I hope many people will read and experience--it is a novel of our time.

Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt has long intrigued me.  I never read any of Anne Rice's books, vampire or otherwise, as the genre for the most part just doesn't appeal to me.  I do, however, love reading about the ancient world, and I have been eager to see what Rice would do with Jesus, especially considering her very public proclamations about her evolving faith.  I think she did a good job of making the boy Jesus a believable character, and her explanation of the research she did that she included as an afterword was fascinating.

Of the several novels I have recently read that feature the life of Jesus, I still prefer Ann Swinfen's The Testament of Miriam over Rice's Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt and Colm Toibin's The Testament of Mary.  As a novel, it was the most interesting of the three, and despite Rice's popularity, the best written.  I found Rice had a Homeric tendency to repeat her modifiers that I found a bit grating.  Nevertheless, I have a copy of book two of the series, Christ the Lord, The Road to Cana, on order so I'll be reading it later this year.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is part of my TBR Pile Challenge for 2014, and Christ the Lord, Out of Egypt is part of my Historical Fiction Challenge.

Tom Hanks as Oskar Schell's dad in the movie version--one of the best literary dads ever conceived and brilliantly played by Hanks.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday...Ten Authors I've Never Read!

The Broke and the Bookish hosts Top Ten Tuesday and this week the meme is all about popular authors we've never read.

Being a lover of classics, there are loads of currently popular authors I've never read, but there are also some classic authors who have eluded me.

Here's but a fraction of the biggies whose work I haven't read yet.

  1. John Grisham - I actually think I would enjoy his books, but I just haven't gotten around to them.
  2. Joyce Carol Oates - I'm planning to read Blonde, her book about Marilyn Monroe, but I haven't read anything by Oates to date.
  3. Margaret Atwood - I have several of her books but haven't read any of them yet.  Maybe The Handmaid's Tale should go on next year's TBR Challenge list.
  4. Sir Walter Scott - I keep on trying to get to Waverly and keep on failing, but it is on this year's shelf so I'm hopeful.
  5. Jodi Picoult - I have friends who read everything she writes, but so far nada.
  6. James Patterson - I don't know much about his work other than everybody but me reads it.
  7. Kurt Vonnegut - despite growing up in the 1970s and reading a lot of the books my four older brothers liked, I never read any Vonnegut although I had a copy of Cat's Cradle for years.
  8. John Green - my kids love this author, and I have been meaning to read The Fault in Our Stars for awhile now.
  9. Janet Evanovich - I like mysteries but they're not all I want to read, and I've settled on a couple of other favorite mystery writers.
  10. J.D. Salinger - yes, I have never read Catcher in the Rye.  These days, it simply doesn't appeal to me.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Jane of Lantern Hill - L.M. Montgomery

I grew up rereading L.M. Montgomery's Anne books and routinely credit them for helping shape me into the person I am today--someone who loves to read, enjoys rural life and finds solace in nature, but also loves being part of a community, etc.

Until last year when I read Montgomery's The Blue Castle, I hadn't tried any of her books outside of the Anne canon.  Now that I've read Jane of Lantern Hill, I really regret being such a purest.  Jane of LH is wonderful and has all the best elements of my favorite Anne stories--a sympathetic, intelligent but not overly sweet heroine, a large cast of quirky secondary characters who serve as either chums or foils, lots of roaming around Price Edward Island (literally seems like heaven on earth to me!), a bit of mystery, and good surrogate parents.

The last isn't entirely true because unlike most Montgomery heroines, Jane's parents, while estranged, are both alive.  Jane Stuart isn't an orphan, but at the beginning she might as well be as her mother is a prisoner of her own weak character and can't pull herself out of the mire and actually be a good mother to Jane. When her father sends for her, the summer of her 11th year, she has only just found out she actually has a living father.  Jane's father, Andrew Stuart, is perfect--a writer, a philosopher, a chum, a sympathetic listener who sees the spark of brilliance in his daughter and allows it to shine.

Jane's mother and grandmother and most of her family in Toronto are uniformly dreadful in various ways, and it's interesting how Jane is one person in Toronto and really a much different person on PEI.  The novel isn't brilliantly written--it's not a masterpiece of plot and the writing is a bit uneven--but it was such a treat to read.  I felt nostalgic even though it was my first time reading it--I could imagine loving it as a child, and that was enough to make me feel glad inside.

According to the Wikipedia entry on Montgomery, Jane of Lantern Hill was the last fiction she wrote. Published in 1937, Jane of Lantern Hill depicts a PEI that is a bit changed from that which Anne roamed, but not a whole lot--the Milky Way still shines undimmed by city lights, the sea and shore merge with farmland, hills, and woods, providing an idyllic place to live and grow and thrive.  I read that Montgomery started a sequel in 1939, but died in 1942, leaving it unfinished.

In 1990, Kevin Sullivan did a TV movie called Lantern Hill.  From what I gather, he took most of the characters and the basic premise and then plunked a ghost story on top of it.  I've been toying with watching it because I love the idea of Sam Waterson playing Andrew Stuart--seems like ideal casting to me--but a quick Twitter poll has convinced me that Sullivan did a hatchet job on Jane in the same way that he did with the final Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story, which is loathed by Anne fans worldwide.

This book qualifies in my Back to the Classics Challenge as a classic by a woman author.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Dr. Thorne by Anthony Trollope

My favorite type of novel is when good people are confronted with moral or ethical challenges that shake them to their core.  Dr. Thorne, the third in Trollope's Barsetshire novels, is just such a story and it was absolutely wonderful.  Not only did Dr. Thorne strive mightily to do the best he could to save the man whose death would materially benefit those he loved most dearly, but he did so without being sanctimonious.  I'm also currently rereading Mansfield Park, to mark the 200th anniversary of its publication this year, and the contrast between priggish, gossipy Edmund Bertram and Dr. Thorne is stark.

Dr Thorne may be my favorite Trollope so far--much as I enjoyed The Warden and Barchester Towers--Dr. Thorne is set in a village not a cathedral town, and the focus of the story is on the rocky road to matrimony experienced by two worthy young people rather than church politics.  Although there are some first rate stories in the two other books, there is a good deal that is tempting to skim.  Not so with Dr. Thorne--except for a relatively brief foray into politics around a local election--the story follows the Austenian formula and stays focused on two to three families and their interactions.

I absolutely loved Mary Thorne.  She is sweet enough to be a Dickens heroine, but with a saucy edge that makes her refreshingly real and not cardboard.  And her relationship with her uncle, the eponymous Dr. Thorne, is lovely. It reminded me of Molly Gibson's with her father before he went and remarried in Gaskell's masterpiece, Wives and Daughters.

The hero of the story, Frank Gresham, is also a charmer--actually he seems to be the prototype of a Heyer hero--not the brooding one but the rather hapless pup who grows into a manly man, I'm thinking of Freddy Standen here, of Cotillion.

Frank's mother is quite the Mrs. Norris, in fact, she was almost too awful to be believable.  And his father rather reminded me of Lord Grantham.  In fact, there is a Downton Abbeyish air to Dr. Thorne--the upper class coming upon somewhat hard times and endeavoring to marry their way into saving their estate.  I'm sure Julian Fellowes knows his Trollope.

I don't mean to give the impression that Dr. Thorne is a frilly, lightweight classic. No, it tackles all sorts of issues--politics, class conflict, alcoholism, illegitimacy, profligacy--but Trollope does such a fine job of balancing the tightness of the main story with the larger canvas of the nineteenth century rural/gentry world that you can really have, much like in an Austen novel, a character-driven story in what feels like a very real and complex world.

I couldn't find any reference to an adaptation of Dr. Thorne--what is the BBC waiting for?  I vote for an adaptation of this marvelous story over yet another David Copperfield or Jane Eyre or Vanity Fair.

This is my first book in the Back to the Classics Challenge for 2014.